General view of a banner displayed referencing Iranian women during a World Cup match. (File photo/Agencies)
Thousands of Iranian women fans will be free to attend a soccer game on Thursday for the first time in decades, after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its male-only policy.
Iran has barred female spectators from attending soccer and other stadiums for nearly 40 years, with clerics arguing they must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and the sight of semi-clad men.
World soccer's governing body, FIFA, ordered the Islamic republic last month to allow women access to stadiums without restriction and in numbers determined by demand for tickets.
Break a taboo
The directive came after a fan dubbed "Blue Girl" died after setting herself on fire due to fear of being jailed for dressing up as a boy to attend a match.
Women were quick to get their hands on tickets to attend Iran's 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia at Teheran's Azadi Stadium on Thursday.
The first batch sold out in less than an hour, and additional seats were also snapped up in short order, state media said.
Those women lucky enough to attend will be segregated from men and watched over by 150 female police officers.
The Sports Ministry said the 100,000-capacity stadium - whose name means "Freedom" in Farsi - was ready to host even more women.
One of the 3,500 women to have secured a ticket was Raha Poorbakhsh, a soccer journalist.
"I still can't believe this is going to happen because after all these years of working in this field, watching everything on television, now I can experience everything in person," she said.
But Poorbakhsh said she was aware of many other women still without tickets. Some were expected to travel to the capital from as far away as Ahvaz in southern Iran in the hope of still getting a ticket.
There have been rare occasions in recent years when Iranian women have been allowed to watch matches, but this time they were free to buy their own tickets, albeit a set number.
People on the streets of Teheran said they supported the decision to allow women into stadiums.
"I would like there to be freedom for women, like men, to go freely and even sit side by side without any restrictions, like other countries," said a woman who gave her name only as Hasti.
Nader Fathi, who runs a clothing business, said the presence of women could improve the atmosphere in stadiums.
But he said "they will regret it" if they are exposed to "really bad swear words" and "bad behavior".
Iran denied its decision to allow women into Thursday's match was a result of "foreign pressure".
"The presence of #women in stadiums is due to the internal social demands and government's support of those demands," government spokesman Ali Rabiei tweeted.
The ban on women in stadiums is not written into law or regulations, but it has been strictly enforced.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have only had rare access to stadiums in Iran.
In October, as many as 100 carefully selected Iranian women attended a friendly game against Bolivia. The next day, however, Iran's prosecutor general warned there would be no repeat, saying it would "lead to sin".
Then in November, a select group of about 850 women attended a match between Esteghlal's Teheran rivals, Persepolis FC, and Japan's Kashima Antlers.